Slow and bloody movie about Tokugawa decadence: “Rônin-gai” (1990)

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The 1990 “Rônin-gai,” directed by Kuroki Kazuo (Ash-ita), reinforced my opinion that the golden age of rônin films was the 1960s, when Mifune Toshirô and Nakadai Tatsuya were in their prime, starring in unglamorizing films directed by Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), Okamoto Kihachi (Kill!, Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin), Shinoda Masahiro (Samurai Spy), and Kobayashi Masaki (Hara-kiri, Samurai Rebellion) set in the 19th century, in the declining days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) after centuries of peace had rusted Japan’s hereditary warriors caste (the samurai) and its honor code (the tao of the sword).

What “Rônin-gai” added was what looks like a strand from Mizoguchi’s many movies about the hard lot of prostitutes, such as “The Life of Oharu”)… or from slasher movies. Through most of the movie the swordsmanship on display is slicing up prostitutes (“social cleansing” by a group of samurais working for the Tokugawa shogun).

The local rônin (unemployed samurai) mostly drink at a tavern/bordello along a stream, some distance from Edo (now Tokyo) in 1836. At the outset of the movie, a particularly dissolute one named Gennai (Harada Yoshio) has returned to resume a relationship with the most high-priced of the prostitutes, Oshin (Higuchi Kanaka). Another rônin, Gonbei (Ishabashi Renji), longs for her, and a third, “Bull” (Katsu Shintaro), has appointed himself bouncer and protector of the prostitutes, including Oshin. Nearby, dealing in caged birds (and smelling of guano) is another rônin, Doi. I thought the woman who lives with him and nags him must be his wife, but I guess is his sister. She and Oshin set a trap for the murderer, but did not consider that instead of one psychotic there was a whole army. (The viewer knows this early on, so mentioning it is not plot-spoiling.)

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Plot spoiler alert

“Bull” sells himself as an amusement to the shogunate samurai, but is unwilling to aid in their “social cleansing” of those he had been protecting (the prostitutes).

Eventually (as in the Kobayashi rônin movies), there is a long battle scene. Gennai is, as usual, weaving from excess drink, but is the first champion on the scene, slaughtering attackers as he staggers about. Gombei takes time to change clothes (immaculate white that is soon bloodstained) before joining the battle. Doi suits up in the armor he was considering selling and charges into the fray on horseback.

End of plot spoiler alert

A lot of blood is spilled, including sadistic murders of unarmed women. The proto-fascist samurais are the villains. Oshin is the closest thing to a hero, though the rônin eventually remember their code of honor as samurai in somewhat comical ways.

The long stretch of setting up the battle lacks the tension of “Harakiri” (and the charisma of Nakadai!). None of the characters is very likable (the women are not unlikable, but are not individuated, other than Oshin having more initiative). For a character-driven movie, more interested characters are necessary. For a plot-driven movie, more action is needed. As it is, Harada’s wild hair is often more interesting than what the characters are doing.

The cinematography of Takawai Hitoshi seems muddy to me. The music of Mastsumura Teizo (who also scored “Tomrrow” for Kuroki) annoys more than it serves the story.

It seems to me that the jidai-geki movie in Japan was in the same parlorous state as the American western by 1990 (but has been revitalized in the new millennium with the masterful “Twilight Samurai” and others.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Oil Hell Murder

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“Oil Hell Murder” (1992) has to be one of the least inviting of movie titles. The Japanese title of what provided to be the last movie directed by Gosha Hideo, “Onna goroshi abura no jigoku,” which means “Woman murdered at oil hell” is at least more informative, specifying the sex of the person murdered in a lot of spilled oil at an oil store in 18th-century Osaka.

The movie opens with police examining and charting the knife wounds (plus two severed fingers) on the corpse. It then shows the recent past of Kichi (Higuchi Kanako), the wife of an oil merchant who was also the daughter of one. I think she was the cousin of the spoiled young womanizer, Gohei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi). At one point he calls her “auntie.” Whatever the exact family relationship, Kichi took care of Gohei as an infant and continues to lecture him on how he should settle down and learn the business rather than collecting the hearts of geishas. (Higuchi Kanako is six years older than Higuchi Kanako.)

Gohei is carrying on an affair with Kogiku (Fujitana Miwako), the only child of the Ogura-Ya oil magnate (on whose good will Kichi’s husband’s shop depends) Kichi is determined to end the affair for a number of reasons and chides Kogiku as well as Gohei. Both women call him a womanizer, though the movie does not show him being at all promiscuous.

First he is in love with Kogiku, defying the brutal opposition of both families. Then Kichi seduces him and he is besotted with her, demanding that she run away with him with or without her two young children. After being married to a socially good match, Kogiku is sleeping around. Kichi is less a cocktease than a heart-tease, wanting a sexual relationship with her younger relative (Yohei) but not to leave the husband who has never provided her sexual pleasure, but who has sired two children on her.

The movie is based on a kabuki melodrama (of the same name) by Chikamatsu. Goha was an action-film director, even in the bizarre campy “Death Shadows” (1989), the most recent other Goha movies that Criteiron/Hulu has imported. Gohei’s knife is frequently brandished and even more frequently shown sheated, and there are some beatings and a prolonged, slip-sliding in the oil murder, but no swordfighting. Not just in being based on a Chikamatsu kabuki play but in the artful composition of shots (the cinematographer was Ichida Isamu, who had shot earlier films, including “Tracked,” for Gosha) , the movie seems more like a Shinoda film than a Goha one. The focus on a woman’s sexual obsession could as well have been Shinoda’s or Ôshima’s. The slow pace does not differentiate the late work of any of these three new wave directors.

Either of the other two would probably have provided more female nudity than Goha did. “Oil Hell Murder” displays all of the body of Tsutsumi Shin’ichi except for what little is covered by a fundoshi (and Kogiku slices off a “strap” of it). All three leads were physically attractive (and received multiple closeups), though none of them is very sympathetic a character. In that she should be the mature one, Kichi’s seems more reprehensible to me than the other two’s, though she pays the ultimate price for her manipulations.

Reviews of the other Goha-directed movies available from Criterion/Hulu and stars (1-10scale):

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) 8

Sword of the Beast (1965) 8

Goyokin (1969) 8.4

Hunter in the Dark (1979) 5.5

Tracked (1985) 5.4

Death Shadows (1986) 3

Oil Hell Murder (1992) 6

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Gosha’s peculiar “Death Shadows”

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Gosha Hideo’s Jittemai (Death Shadows, 1986) is a very convoluted, garishly colored movie about gangsters working with the family of the shogun (the Hamada clan) late in the Tokugawa Shogunate and attempts to thwart the corrupt conspiracy by a policeman who licenses criminals condemned to be beheaded to kill bad guys. He severs their vocal chords, though this does not keep the main “shadow” from expounding (via voiceover) at length with a minimum of hand gestures.

Yasuke the Viper (Kawatani Takuzo) had settled down with a reformed prostitute and turned into a doting father when he is recalled to take down Denzo the Fang (Chii Takeo), a gang leader for whom he used to work. Denzo escapes the first ambush… and Yasuke is spared being killed in the second one by one of Denzo’s mistresses, Ocho (Ishihara Mariko), his estranged daughter. In that she has dedicated her life to finding and killing the father who abandoned her mother and her, this makes no sense, but many of the actions and relationships in the movie similarly defy sense.

Competing female swordsmen occur in many (mostly bad!) Hong Kongo (Shaw brothers) movies, but in no other Japanese movie I’ve seen. Ocho’s rival, Oren who had been Denzo’s main squeeze and runs an illegal tattoo parlor. Natsuki Mari, who lays Oren, has a resemblance to Faye Dunaway are her most cartoonish (Mommie Dearest?).

After Ocho has been recruited to finish the job her father started (he was killed trying to protect her and dies in her arms begging for forgiveness) her other main opponent in Genshiro. I’m not sure when (never mind why!) she falls in love with him, but she saves him and then he saves her.

There are many sword fights. Ocho generally relies more on a long multi-colored she swirls about than on her short sword. And there are also four or five dance sequences showing more ribbon swirling to a disco beat with dry ice providing fog. I’d say these are padding, except so is the injection of more and more characters as others are killed off during the nearly two hour running time.

After all the betrayals, only one character is left standing at the end, though the Shogunate dodders on with none of the conflicts becoming public.

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If it went more completely for campiness, the movie might be more entertaining (like Shinoda’s pop “Killers on Parade”), though the campiest character, the corrupt policeman Boss Hell (pictured above) is really not all that amusing. It is easy to see why Nakadai Tatsuya, who had been appearing regularly in Gosha movies (hamming it up in “Onimasa”), gave this one a pass, and I’d say so should viewers, though Criterion has seen fit to import it rather than some of the Ichikawa, Kinoshita, and Shinoda films I’d dearly love to be able to see.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Usugesho/Tracked

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Usugesho,” the title of Gosha Hideo’s 1985 movie means cosmetics, rather than “Tracked,” its English title. Late in the slow-paced movie, there is a juxtaposition of a man and a woman applying mascara to their eyebrows. A young girl sees the male protagonist doing this and he asks her if she wants to look beautiful and applies some mascara to her eyebrows, too… while holding her throat, stimulating dread in the viewer that he will strangle her to keep her quiet about his camouflage.

I don’t see how darker eyebrows will make Sakane Tokichi (Ken Ogata, who has a prominent mole at the top of his nose) less visible, and he is being pursued (if not quite “tracked”) through the course of the movie. (Ogata had already been chases through a whole movie as the serial killer in Imamura’s “Vengeance Is Mine” (1979).)

It begins with him running from an explosion of a wooden shack in a mining camp. The viewer soon learns that he blew up his wife, young son, and two neighbors. Flashbacks provide some sympathy for murdering his harridan of a wife. I’m not sure why audiences (including me) tend to sympathize with fleeing from massive manhunts, however heinous the crime(s). The brutality of the police interrogation of the prisoner tied to a chair as he is battered around encourages some sympathy, as does the challenge (not shown) of burrowing 70 feet from his prison cell.

And, then, Sakane treats several vulnerable people well as he moves from worksite to worksite (I thought that Japan had much tighter household registration than appears in the film!). Even if his wife “deserved” to die, however, there is no way his son did—along with the “collateral damage” of two other deaths.

The detective (Asano Atsuko) on his trail does not do anything to seem more sympathetic, though his retired supervisor (Kawatani Takukô) opines that Sakane simply had the bad luck of not finding a “good woman” and may not be a vicious killer, as the detective still on the job maintains. Leaving aside his murder, Sakane seems selfish sometimes, kindly sometimes, penitent but conniving, patient but quick-tempered… and if he had a trial (rather than escaping before one), no attempt to explain himself is in the film script.

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Not surprisingly (for a Japanese movie), a woman compromises his safety. Sakane loves barmaid (/owner?) Chei (Fuju Mariko) and leaves her for her own good (and, coincidentally, making it harder to track him).

I found the pace slow, despite the jarring juxtaposition of past and present (i.e., the flashbacks) and it slows to glacial in the final quarter, as if Gosha was unwilling to let go of the character, though evidencing no interest in taking any position on whether he had been reborn or was still the killer being hunted by the law(man).

Satô Masura provided a rich soundtrack to the endeavor and Marita Fujio more than serviceable cinematography, but I found the film less compelling than earlier Gosha examinations of identity, such as “Sword of the Beast,” “Goyokin” and “Hitokori.”

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(Though I’ve never seen Gosha referred to as having been part of the Japanese New Wave, his recurrent focus on doom, erotic sadomasochism, and fragile identity fits with the works of Ôshima, Imamura, and Shinoda.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

A retrospect on the films of Shinoda Masahiro

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Born in 1931 in Gifu, Shinoda Masahiro was a student of theater history at the elite, private Waseda University in Tokyo. Shōchiku Studio hired him as a trainee in 1953 and Shinoda worked as an assistant to Ozu (Shinoda was credited as assistant director on “Tokyo Twilight” in 1957). The studio was attempting to profit from youth movies, especially after the commercial success of Ôshima’s first movies (Cruel Story of Youth, et al.) and greenlighted Shinoda directing his script for “One-Way Ticket to Love” a movie about young people trying to make a start in the music business (the title was a Neil Sedaka hit of the time).

Though “One-Way Ticket to Love” is a fairly interesting movie that initially pleased the Shōchiku executives, it did not make money, and he was briefly demoted to directing scenarios by studio contract writers (mostly Terayama Shûji).

Shinoda moved from making movies about disaffected youth to stylish gangster/noir movies with “Pale Flower” (1963) and made his first historical movie, “Samurai Spy,” in 1965, followed by his most revered masterpiece, “Double Suicide” (1969). “Double Suicide” was quite stylized, drawing on the puppet play tradition of Chikimatsu that Shinoda had studied in college. (Shinoda also focused directly on traditional Japanese performing traditions in “The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan” and “The Ballad of Orin” and in one of the characters on the ship to Kyushu in “Moonlight Serenade“)

During the 1970s Shinoda made some very visually gorgeous color movies with extreme (not always stylized!) violence and repellent characters (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin, followed a decade later by “Gonza, the Spearman”). While admiring many of the visual compositions in these movies, they try my patience (both in slow pace and in graphic violence).

Few of Shinoda’s later movies are available, including two of three set in the time of his childhood/youth (“MacArthur’s Children,” which I saw three decades ago in a film festival screening, and the 1990 “Childhood” Days” that I would very much like to see.

The only one of Shinoda’s last six films (or most recent ones, in that he is still alive, though he has not directed a film since the 2003 “Spy Sorge” about a WWII-era Soviet spy in Germany and Japan) is available, that one, “Moonlight Serenade,” strikes me as a late masterpiece (though the present-day of the Kobe earthquake frame seemed superfluous to me).

Though Kobayashi had commissioned a soundtrack from Takemitsu (The Thick-Walled Room, 1953), Shinoda regularly used percussive and anti-sentimental Takemitsu scores that enhanced the icy aestheticism of the images (shot in the black and white movies through “Samurai Spy” (1965) by  Kosugi Masao). Shinoda has always set up the shots, and authored the scripts of 15 of his 32 films, so seems to me clearly to count as a full-fledged auteur. I don’t always like the results, but consider Shinoda and Imamura Shôhei the most interesting over a course of time Japanese New Wave filmmakers (for a short burst, 1962-65, Tehshigahara/Abe get my nod).

Shinoda’s late masterpiece: “Moonlight Serenade”

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Shinoda Masahiro’s (1997) “Moonlight Serenade” (Setouchi mûnratio serenâde) recounts a family’s trip by train and ferry from Awaji to a hometown on the island of Kyushu (via Beppu) with the cremains of the eldest son, who had died in 1945, just before Japan’s surrender. It is narrated by the youngest son, whose recollections are stimulated by reporting on the Kobe earthquake half a century later. Both the US firebombing of Kobe and the earthquake caused a lot of damage, both structural damage and wildfires. In 1945 the boy watched the city burn. As in 1945, in 1995 he again observes out-of-control fires and stoic Japanese.

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His father, Koichi (Nagatsuka Kyôzô [A Laughing Frog] above), rigid even for a Japanese policeman, is given to whacking his two surviving sons. The older surviving one, seventeen-year old Koji (pop star Toba Jun, below left) is rebellious (his long hair looks very 1950s to me) attempts to keep their father from hitting the younger Keita (Kasahara Hideyuki in his film debut, below right), taking the blows himself.

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Koji commences a romance with Yukiko (Yoshikawa Hinano, who won the newcomer of the year award of the Japanese Motion Picture Academy and went on to “Tokyo Eyes” and “Who’s Camus, Anyway?” but has not appeared onscreen since 2006) a very somber-looking orphan with very long braids who is roughly his age. She is also staying at the inn (which is mostly a love hotel to which one of the father’s workmates has some family connection), in Awaji also preparing to take a ship to Kyushu (Beppu).

Koji is planning to run away on the trip, flaunting fraternal as well as filial piety. Yukiko follows him out of the inn into the dangerous (especially for an unaccompanied young woman: see Mizoguchi’s “Women of the Night”) black market. Together, they flee men menacing her and return to the inn. Koji wants to squire her to her surviving relatives in Kyushu.

On the boat, Koji is mostly with Yukiko in first class, while the rest of the family is spread out on the floor of a lower deck. Compared to the historical footage of troops being repatriated by ship that is nearly SRO, they have some space.

A sly black marketer, played by Takada Junji, shares some of his liquor, and accompanied by statements of contempt for those profiting in the black market, Koichi drinks with him. Nearby a morphine-addicted former soldier with a terminal case of survivor guilt has a chaste romance with a young woman raped by US GIs who is going to become a geisha on the southern island. And there is a silent-film narrator going on a circuit of Kyushu with his mute son and a stash of movies, including some with swordfights that have been banned by the US Occupation authority. Plus a guilt-ridden high school principal wracked with guilt for having enthusiastically sent off schoolboys to die in the recently lost war.

There are surprises, including a tragic one on the Beppu dock, on Kyushu, deepening the major characters, including the mother who tries to moderate her husband’s violent authoritarianism (she was played by Shinoda’s wife Iwashita [An Autumn Afternoon, Harakiri) and, especially, her husband.

Though there is no shortage of suffering and anguish, there is also a lot of humor, including Keita’s belief that he is going down in a “family suicide,” a rumor swirling around back at home before they left, after taking a family photo. There’s even a fight scene, in which young yakusa continue the samurai movie tradition of attacking one at a time rather than ganging up against a single righteous opponent.

There were gorgeous shots of islands and trains going through verdant countryside in “Moonlight Serenade” and I am surprised that a fairy gentle though not particularly sentimental coming-of-age story set in the time of the director’s youth (he was born in 1935) came so late in his body of work, along with “MacArthur’s Children (“1984), which I saw decades ago and found slow and diffuse, and, I think, “Takeshi: Childhood Days” (1990), set during the end of WWII bombing of Japan when children had been evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside (it won eight Japanese Academy Awards, but is not, alas available here). These late works differ from the mid-1970s movies that I find visually striking but grim and even nihilistic (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, Ballad of Orin, and the 1986 “Gonza the Spearman”), as well as the very stylish and also hope-deficient earlier masterpieces (Pale Flower, Double Suicide).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (1986)

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“What a world is it in which we find ourselves!”

Shinoda’s “Gonza, the Spearman” (Yari no gonza’, 1986), based on a puppet (bunraku) play by Chikamatsu Monzemon (1653-1725), another of whose plays was the basis for Shinoda’s masterpiece, the 1969 black-and-white “Double Suicide,” won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Those looking for a fight scene have a long wait (approximately two hours). Much more time is occupied by the extremely deliberate tea ceremonies. In a country becalmed by the Pax Tokugawa, samurai can rise in status and income more easily by perfect enactment of the tea ceremony than by prowess with weapons (prototypically, swords, although Gonza’s specialty is the spear (the bamboo-poled yari)).

There is a very complicated plot involving three women whose names begin with “O”s, two with the terminal consonant being a “k.” Moreover, two are approximately the same age, the other the mother of one of the other two. The mother, Osei (Shinoda’s wife and frequent star, Iwishita Shima), wants to marry her daughter, Okiku (Mizushima), to Sasano Gonza (Gô Hiromi), though she is more than a little enamored by him herself (for herself). And though he has pledged and bedded Oyuki (Tanaka Misako), the sister of Gonza’s rival. Though a skilled warrior and legendarily beautiful, Gonza “understands nothing. Not women, not this age we are living in” with no need of martial prowess (but with great concern about marital fidelity and the appearances of marital fidelity!).

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Gonza is opportunistic, but not in comparison with his local samurai rival Bannojo (Hino Shôhei). It is easy to remember who Bannojo is, because practically every time he speaks he says “I Bannojo…”

Ca. 1717, Osei’s husband, Gonzo’s lord, Ichiinoshin, is off at court (like Louis XIV at Versailles, the Tokugawa shoguns liked to keep potential rebels close at hand) in Edo (Tokyo). While the cat’s away, the mice play, leading to pregnancies that cannot be explained as resulting from marital coitus and lead to many a suicide, including, in effect another double one here (albeit without a pregnancy, or, even adultery, though fleeing the appearance of adultery…)

“Gonza” does not involve showing the puppet play on which it is based, as Shindo did with the frame “Double Suicide,” but “Gonza” is very stylized and very, very slow for western audiences (as were his mid-1970s movies, Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, and Ballad of Orin). It is talky and visually quite static, though the color photography by Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Sansho, Ugestu) is quite beautiful. With recurrent closeups of objects, also à la Ozu (“pillow shots”). The film has a first-rate Takemitsu score (soundscaping, not only what would be generaly classified as “music”).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray